Magazine | December 31, 2014, Issue


Showman scientist and charismatic universe-explainer Neil deGrasse Tyson had some tweets the other day on the subject “When I was your age.” They were lessons about technological progress, aimed at today’s youth. Sample:

“We had to open all doors by ourselves. None of them knew we were coming.”

I’m the same age as the learned astrophysicist, and recall childhood delight when doors opened automatically at the SuperValu in Fargo. You stepped on a grooved rubber surface and the door swung open. The patent for this innovation was granted in 1952 — it’s called mat actuator, if you’re curious, and I am determined to name a character Matt Actuator in my next high-tech spy thriller novel.

I’m sure they were around in Tyson’s time. Pointing this out may make me an enemy of Science whose forebears lynched the grocery-store manager for sorcery.

Picking apart Tyson quotes and assertions was a merry diversion on the right earlier this year, when he “misremembered” a G. W. Bush quote to remind us how that God-bothering simpleton tried to slam Islam. There were other quotes and anecdotes that didn’t quite hold up either. No big deal, really. It wasn’t Tyson’s comments that annoyed some people, or the slavish fealty many paid to his persona, or even the hands-clasped-at-the-sternum awe over his insights and observations.

It was the acolytes’ hubris, the idea that they were enlightened because they Effin’ Loved Science, to paraphrase their rallying cry, and thus were morally superior. I am an empiricist who gets a pelvis-tingle when looking at pictures of distant galaxies. That’s nice, dear. There is no god but Einstein, and Tyson is his prophet! Whatever makes you happy.

Science, to this group, is set up in opposition to Faith. Which is like saying you can believe in either bagels or cream cheese. Anyway, Tyson tweeted out another deep one recently, and for a smart fellow it seemed rather dumb.

“Aliens, seeing Humans kill over land, politics, religion, & skin color, would surely ask, ‘What the f*%k is wrong with you?’”

Note: Humans aren’t fighting for freedom, or the right to worship as they please, or to construct their society according to their own conception. They’re just killing over land, politics, and religion. The man splashing through shallow water at Normandy is equivalent to the Luftwaffe pilot strafing Poland. Got it.

If these all-wise peaceable aliens were perplexed by the messy manifestations of human nature, it suggests they came from the planet Rainbo-4 in the Happygas system where life evolved to cooperate, thanks to a climate that showered the land with meat and candy three times a day. Or they were adolescents on a field trip to Earth. Let’s agree that it is stupid to kill over skin color, and take a look at the rest of his points:

It is stupid to kill over politics. If a political system arises that is oppressive, controls your every movement, is intolerant of free expression, and shackles the individual in the name of advancing the collective, any sensible alien would think, “By all means, accept it and do your part,” if the aliens were descended from bees. If they came from a species that did not consist of horrid insects with compound eyes on stalks who communicated by licking one other’s pheromone-emission units, they might understand why creatures would fight over a political system.

Fighting over religion would also be incomprehensible to the aliens, because they would be atheists, of course. They might find it odd that one group of believers seemed keen on beheading everyone else, while another preferred to keep their noggins affixed to their usual locations and fought against those who set up the chop shops wherever their deity was celebrated.

If the aliens did find this strange, then these are some really unimaginative super-genius ETs. If an anthropologist discovered a tribe living deep in the Amazon, and their religious rites consisted of rubbing hallucinogenic toad sweat on their eyeballs in order to worship a wheel that fell off a plane in 1947, it would make sense to him. He’d have context. Aliens can master the physics required to get across the galaxy, but in Tyson’s view, metaphysics would be a head-scratcher.

But these aren’t really aliens. They are the stand-ins for  Tyson’s audience, which is smarter than most humans and can see things from a billion-light-year perspective that makes our petty divisions seem silly. These “aliens” are like the wise, serene, unitog-wearing extraterrestrials of ’50s sci-fi, whose objectives curiously mirrored those of the nuclear-disarmament movement. Earth had the bomb, so it had to be dealt with; our species could not contaminate the peaceable society of Space — which, in the case of The Day the Earth Stood Still, was enforced by mindless golems who wiped out billions of creatures if they got testy. But we were the dangerous ones.

In the movies we never were visited by aliens who said, “Say, we noted that you guys discovered the power of atomic energy. That’s grand. See, civilized space is being invaded by a species that believes life on other worlds is a galactic infection that offends their god, and they’re sterilizing every planet. We could use those bombs, to be honest. We’re running a bit low. Can we count you in?”

Then Earth would be killing for land, religion, and probably politics if the wise aliens also favored increasing tariffs on interstellar trade routes. That would be different, if the evil invading aliens were from system T-PRTii. Then it would be good. Then it would be Science.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at

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